Webber, Vettel among those with interesting strategies for soft tires

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Trying to fit a round up of today’s thrilling Chinese GP into a few hundred words is not easy. The race weekend, as with the previous two before it, was always likely to be dominated by tires, but the relative difference in laptime between the two compounds here, surprised even Pirelli.

That speed differential between the two, offered the possibility of varying strategies in the race. We saw the majority of the top runners opting to qualify on the faster, yellow ringed soft tire, giving a faster ultimate single lap time, World Champion Sebastian Vettel was the most prominent driver to try something a little different.

Red Bull Racing’s strategy, initially with both cars, was to save the soft, short-life compound until the end of the race when the cars were lighter and would grip the track more. The compromise is that while running on the medium, durable tire, you’re in the middle of the pack at the start of the race when everyone else is faster and excitable and prone to accidents and traffic.

For Sebastian Vettel, you could say the plan worked. Starting 9th and finishing 4th is a good return and given a couple more corners at the end, he could have stolen 2nd.

One of the most interesting strategies, which we unfortunately didn’t get to see fully play out, was the one that Vettel’s teammate, Mark Webber. He was somewhat forced into by the team’s failure to fuel his car correctly in qualifying. Having been sent to the back of the grid for failing to provide a fuel sample to the FIA on Saturday, the team opted to pull the car out of parc ferme overnight and make changes otherwise forbidden under normal conditions…you can’t be sent any further back!

Red Bull were able to set the car up for the race, as apposed to the normal compromise set up to accommodate single lap pace in qualifying. This means they changed gear ratios and aero settings to enable Webber to overtake easier down Shanghai’s long straights, as well as having free choice on their starting tires. Having not completed the full qualifying session, he also had more new tires for the race than everyone else too.

Interestingly, starting last, they opted to start on the soft tire, which everyone knew wouldn’t last more than about 5 laps in the Grand Prix, but rather than run for the 5 laps, he pitted immediately and changed straight onto the preferred medium compound.
This enabled him to get the mandated soft tire phase out of the way without actually losing any track position. He rejoined after his stop, still last, but able to complete the whole race on the better tire and it looked to be a good move. At the point where the front runners were being forced to pit after lap 5 or 6, Webber moved up through the field and was looking like a real contender. The midfield runners who started on the medium tire would have to fit the soft tire at some point, so Webber may have rescued a good opportunity from a dire situation.

Unfortunately a questionable decision on Webber’s part to lunge past a Toro Rosso ended in collision and a forced pitstop for a front wing change. That in itself wasn’t the end of the world, as they were only a couple of laps short of their intended pitstop window, but the pit crew who broke world records last time out in Malaysia, went from hero to zero one race later.

Webber rejoined the race, but half way round his out lap, the right rear wheel detached from the car and his Grand Prix was over. It would have been really interesting to see the result, but that’s Formula One.

There’s been a lot of complaining about tires recently, some of it perhaps justified, but no one can say that today’s race wasn’t fascinating and had an incredible finish, and the Pirellis played a big part in that.

Marc Priestley can be found on Twitter @f1elvis.

Schmidt Peterson confirms all-Canadian lineup of Hinchcliffe, Wickens

Photo: IndyCar
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The Schmidt Peterson Motorsports team is going for a diet of denim, maple syrup, pace and politeness in its 2018 Verizon IndyCar Series lineup, with an all-Canadian pairing of James Hinchcliffe and Robert Wickens confirmed for next season.

Hinchcliffe was known to want a driver of Wickens’ caliber alongside him in the second seat after three less-than-fruitful seasons with James Jakes (2015), Mikhail Aleshin (2016) and a combination of drivers (Aleshin, Sebastian Saavedra, Jack Harvey) rotated through the second car the last three years.

Recent changes have brought them to this point and now leads them to becoming full-time teammates for the first time in a decade, since the defunct country-focused A1 Grand Prix series in 2007-2008.

Hinchcliffe has re-signed with Schmidt Peterson after three seasons with the team. His first was shortened due to his near life-threatening injuries sustained in an accident in practice for that year’s Indianapolis 500. A rapid and welcome recovery followed throughout the second half of 2015 before his comeback to action in 2016, with an Indianapolis 500 pole and a couple near-misses on wins that followed. In 2017, he won Round 2 at Long Beach but faltered in the second half of the year through a litany of mechanical woes and bad luck.

Wickens, meanwhile, faced an uncertain future when Mercedes-Benz announced earlier this year it would withdraw from DTM at the end of 2018. One of Hinchcliffe’s long-time friends, Wickens hasn’t raced full-time in North America in more than a decade since they were both in Formula Atlantic in 2007, at separate teams (Wickens at Red Bull Forsythe Racing and Hinchcliffe at Sierra Sierra Enterprises). As he pursued his Formula 1 dream and had a wealth of success in the junior series, he never got a proper shot, and has since gone onto several successful years with Mercedes in DTM.

A ride-swap between the two of them came together earlier this year where Wickens sampled Hinchcliffe’s No. 5 Arrow Electronics Schmidt Peterson Motorsports Honda at Sebring’s short course, while Hinchcliffe then flew to Italy to sample Wickens’ Mercedes-AMG C63 DTM after the St. Petersburg season opener. Hinchcliffe ended 13th in points in IndyCar, Wickens ninth in DTM this year, both with one win each during the year. Wickens also had a Friday to sample the No. 7 Lucas Oil SPM Honda at Road America this year, but had to relinquish the seat once Aleshin returned from a visa issue.

“Not only am I really excited to be able to say I’ll be back with SPM for next year and beyond, but I am also really looking forward to being teammates with one of my oldest friends,” said Hinchcliffe.

“Robbie and I grew up racing against one another, eventually took different paths, me staying in North America in open-wheel cars and him going off to Europe in sports cars, but it’s pretty neat that we both ended up here and we get to live our dream of being professional racing drivers, together on the same team.

“I think 2018 is going to be a great year for the SPM organization, from having Robbie here to the team’s new partnership with Honda and the 2018 aero kit; I just can’t wait to get back on track and bring some good results home for the Arrow Electronics crew.”

Wickens added: “This is an entirely new chapter to add to my racing career, and I am really excited for this opportunity that Schmidt Peterson Motorsports has given me.

“I think everyone knows the story by now that James and I grew up racing against one another in go karts, and to make it to the largest open-wheel racing series in North America together as teammates, it’s crazy to think about.

“I am very thankful for the six years I had with everyone at Mercedes and DTM; those are memories I will cherish forever. I can’t wait to truly see what the Verizon IndyCar Series is all about!”